Published: August 26, 2016   Updated: September 16, 2016

When I first started facilitating social justice workshops, I did it the way I was supposed to — or, at least, the way I thought I was supposed to. I facilitated activities in the ways that the facilitators who facilitated them for me facilitated them (facilitate!).

It felt unnatural, a bit like I was acting, forced, and uncomfortable. And of course it did: I was putting as much effort into emulating another person’s behavior as I was into leading an activity. That’s energy misspent.

The goal of the workshop wasn’t to convince them I could act like someone else, that I could talk and explain things like a parrot repeating how they were explained to me. The goals were to teach someone a new concept, open their eyes to an injustice, cultivate empathy, or, ideally, activate something inside of them that inspired them to act in socially-conscious ways.

Achieving the goals of a social justice training is climbing a mountain. Bringing anything with you that you don’t need will only weigh you down. This includes the baggage of “shoulds” and “supposed tos” and “trying to be anything but the snowflake that you are.”

The Best Facilitator You Can Be Is the Youest Facilitator You Can Be

You bring something to the conversation that literally no other person in the world brings: the unique set of experiences, dispositions, ideas, knowledge, attitudes, and insight that you’ve collected in your life.

Own that, embrace it, it is going to help immensely.

To try to act like anyone else, or to be anything but your authentic self when facilitating, will not only encumber you, it’d be a shame to keep all that truly unique you a secret from the group — heck, it’s almost rude. They’re in a lucky position that they may never be in again. Not only do they get to learn about this topic (maybe it’s gender, maybe it’s sexuality, maybe social justice at large), but they get to learn about it from you (your approach to understanding gender, your perspective on why sexuality is important).

Your style may not be everyone’s favorite.

Some participants may prefer a livelier, quieter, funnier, serious-er, dynamic-er, static-er, etcetera-er facilitator. Some will prefer you.

It’s not something you should worry about, but instead free up some mind space to focus on being the best facilitator you can be.

Getting Rid of Some Baggage

The first step to getting comfortable being the youest you you can be, and really putting your spin on a workshop or training, is to shed everything weighing you down.

Let’s unpack some important baggage that might keep you from reaching the top of your mountain:

Know there is no “right” style. There are no “shoulds.” There are “no supposed tos.” As you start to deeply understand the subjects you’re facilitating on, you inherently start to realize there is a lot more grey than there is black or white. Ditto for the ways to approach these topics. There is no one correct way to facilitate.

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

You’re going to screw up. And that’s okay. One of the reasons I found myself trying to emulate the facilitators who taught me things was to avoid screwing up. I saw them do it, it worked, so I should do it like that. If you’re learning what your natural facilitation style is, it means taking the risk that a training or two (or ten) might not go as well as you’d like. Take notes. Give yourself some feedback (and some space to grow). Think about what worked for you and what didn’t, make tweaks, and you’ll get more comfortable every time.

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”

– John Dewey

Do as I say, not as I do. When you go through an activity as a participant, be a sponge for the information, the core concepts, and the learning objectives. But do your best to keep in mind that there are a thousand different paths to any objective, and the way that worked for that facilitator (with their skills, preferences, experience, and personality) may not work for you (with your… all that stuff).

“Truth can be stated in a thousand different ways, yet each one can be true.”

– Swami Vivekananda

Putting Yourself Into Your Facilitation

Let’s assume that you know that you’ll better serve your group being you than trying to be someone else. And that you understand how to approach a few of the hurdles that might stand in the way (and you have some fun quotes to post on Facebook).

But how do you add your style into what you’re facilitating? You know, the title of this entire article. Maybe we should talk about that?

You’re getting to be pretty sassy. Good thing I appreciate sass. Go you. Oh, and here’s how:

1. Identify what you’re good at, and what you’re not so good at.

Ask your friends, co-facilitate with people, or just think about how you act at a dinner party or around your friends. Who are you when you’re comfortable, and what skills do you have that you can draw from.

Are you a storyteller? Use that. Are you the strong, but silent type? Be that. Are you funny? Joke. Are you empathic? Empathize.

Also, hink about the things you know don’t come naturally to you.

If something you’re facilitating requires that you engage in a way that isn’t a good fit, or makes you uncomfortable (bad uncomfortable, not growth uncomfortable), do something about it.  Think about a way to swap out that component with something you excel at, or find someone to co-facilitate with who can fill those gaps.

2. Experiment with the group (not that kind of experiment).

Take the things you’re good at and try incorporating them into the activities you’re facilitating. Ideally, go with one or two new things at time, so you’ll know that if things go well or not-so-well, you can isolate what might have been responsible. Take one activity and facilitate it it in different ways, drawing on different aspects of your personality/skills each time.

As you find things that work, make note. Collect those notes until you have a go-to repository of activities or engagement methods that you know work for you. Think of this like a chef who has a go-to dish they can cook when they really need to impress.

3. Take some risks.

The first time I used humor in a social justice training I was sure it would backfire. I thought it was somehow not allowed, wouldn’t work, and I would regret it. I can’t think of a time I was more wrong about anything. Humor is me. And by taking the risk of putting myself out there, I was rewarded by connecting with the group on a genuine level.

At that point, I had a bunch of things I knew I could fall back to if the risk of humor didn’t work out. This made me feel more willing to take the leap.

4. Reflect and tweak.

Get feedback from people. Give yourself feedback after each training. Think about when you felt most comfortable, when you were reaching, when you were just plain out of your element. While humor is my go-to, it’s not appropriate or effective for everything. Through reflecting and feedback, I’ve learned when it does and doesn’t work. Do the same, and tweak future activities to better emphasize your strengths.

5. Ask for help.

Co-facilitation is a fantastic way to allow you to be a youey you, while the group still gets a well-rounded experience.

Find someone who complements your style and skills. For example, as I mentioned above, if there’s an activity you don’t think your well-suited for, but is important for whatever goals you have for that workshop, find someone to help you. Maybe you’re great at mini-lectures, but not so great at answering on-the-spot, loaded questions. Find someone who is triggered by different things than you, who can step in if you’re feeling out of your element.

Your group will also benefit from co-facilitators who are drawing from different life experiences. We speak from our experience, our identities, and the lenses through which we see the world (whether we mean to or not), so more of all of those things can enhance the group’s experience.

Be you.

It’s scary, it might feel wrong, seem like the harder option, a twisty road without a map, but that all couldn’t be further from the truth. If you care about whatever subject you’re facilitating, and genuinely want to best serve the group, there’s nothing you can do better than being genuinely you.

It’s your training. Your activity. Your workshop. And you’re the one facilitating it. Werk it.

Header image modified from a photo by Mariya Georgieva found on Unsplash.

This article is modified from the original version I wrote as part of The Safe Zone Project Facilitator All-Star Series. You can find that article here.

Written by Sam Killermann

I'm one of the co-facilitators of FacilitatingXYZ and co-author of Unlocking the Magic of Facilitation. I'm a social justice facilitator, generally working in some context as a gender & sexuality educator. I'm also a comedian, bicyclist, and hummus fiend. I live in Austin.

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